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How Far Can We Follow Jesus? Part 2
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In Part 1 of this series, I predicted that millennial Christians' rejection of easy Church membership will oblige them to revisit the historic debate about sinless perfection this side of eternity.
We saw that the debate had reached an impasse, with each side quoting New Testament texts and theological arguments to support their preferred approach. This time, I'd like to start looking more closely at the wording and context of the classic “proof texts” employed on each side of the debate.
The words “Did God say...” tend to make conservative Christians think of Satan in the Garden: but they're also the same words Bible-believing translators ask themselves constantly and prayerfully as they produce the modern language Bible versions most of us have to rely on. Unfortunately, no single Bible translation exactly conveys the words and meaning of the surviving Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts.
This means we need to be on our guard against both excessively loose Bible references and over reliance on one possible meaning of a word or phrase. We're called neither to ignore the Bible's teachings (Mt 7.24-27), nor to go beyond them (1 Co 4.6). So let's consider whether in Mt 5.48 Jesus commanded His disciples to be perfect even as God the Father is perfect.
For years and years, this has been presented by some as an open and shut case, often with a supporting assertion along the lines of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”. But on closer examination, all is not as it seems. Two features in particular have made me question whether Jesus commands perfection of us here.
First of all, New Testament Greek has a specific way of displaying verbs we're supposed to read as instructions or commands (language scholars refer to this feature of a verb or statement as its mood). The usual mood for instructions or commands is called the imperative. But the scholarly tools I use show that the words “you will therefore be perfect” in Mt 5.48 aren't in the imperative. They're in the indicative.
The indicative is normally used to represent a simple statement of fact. It can be used to convey an instruction or commandment, but that's not its usual purpose. So viewed in isolation, the evidence of the mood is strongly suggestive but not conclusive.
The second feature is the word usually translated as either “therefore” or “so”. It links our target verse to other things Jesus has just said, which means that Mt 5.48 should be seen as a logical result of the verses before it. If we read the verse carefully in its immediate context (Mt 5.43-48), we can see it transformed before our eyes.
In Greek, the imperatives addressed to us by Jesus are in Mt 5.44 (“Love your enemies... pray for those who persecute you...”). By doing these things, Jesus says we will show ourselves to be true sons of the heavenly Father (Mt 5.45).
The perfection of Mt 5.48 is offered as praise and encouragement by Jesus to obedient Christians down the ages who love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. We can look for no higher praise. Portrayals of the verse as a commandment for the here and now turn a laurel wreath into a crushing burden.
Jesus offers us a framework for discipleship which doesn't command sinlessness; it looks for our loving obedience. But are our earthly attempts to obey Jesus doomed to be co-mingled with sin? Are Christians really just “saved sinners”? Watch out for Part 3, in which I'll discuss Christians, sin, and sinners.
© 2014 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer who has long-standing friends and contacts in the USA. He's thinking of setting up his own web site to give busy subscribers a time-saving, affordable chance to profit from his extensive Christian library. Send him a message if you'd be interested in signing up. He can be contacted for matters relating to Christian writing via the Faithwriters.com website.
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